The Quietest Picnic

On the first day of summer last year, the downstairs neighbors put a large terra cotta planter with several types of small cacti on the fire escape.  It was one season before John left for good.  He and I would press our foreheads to the window and look down one floor to check on the neighbors' miniature cactus garden.  The cacti grew fine through July and August and John and I thought they were beautiful.  The biggest ones started turning a little gray in October.  By November, they were all toast.

When the last cactus died, John and I talked about it over dinner.  They over-watered, he suggested of the neighbors.

They forgot about the winter, I said.

They aren't good plant parents, he said, and reached into the corner to pat his Ficus tree, like it was a baby.  We pooled our information and realized that all we knew of those neighbors was that they did not yell at each other, they were not home during the day, and they did not care for their plants.  John slurped his fettucine and patted the edges of his mouth with a paper napkin.

The next day, John was gone.  He left the Ficus.  I worried he would show up one day with a sexy blonde and a dolly and move it out without talking to me, whistling and making stupid jokes.  So I changed the locks.

Now, nearly six months have passed.  I look down the fire escape alone and see a terra cotta planter, a round, shallow one, about eighteen inches in diameter.  This time, it is an herb garden.

Idiots, I say to my new cat.  She is young and feisty and likes to shoot out the front door into the hall when I have my arms full of laundry.

I know the neighbors will never be able to keep those herbs alive.  I get an idea.  The cat rolls onto her back and nods her head with her eyes closed.

There is still a bottle of John's Miracle Gro under the kitchen sink.  The top has crusted nearly shut.  I run the bottle under hot water and wrestle it open with a kitchen towel.  Ten to twenty drops per quart, the label says.  I pour a quart of water into a cooking pot, and add fifteen drops of Miracle Gro.  I push the window open.  When the warm June air sneaks in, the cat hops lazily onto the sofa.

It is very difficult to aim the water at the herbs.  I have to lean all the way out the window and tip the pot just slightly to control the flow.  I splash water on the edges of the planter and a second later I hear it hit the street.  Eventually, I saturate the planter.  I stare down at the tiny plants and I can see basil, mint, chives, and another I can't name.  They seem vulnerable.

I water the herb garden every other day with a Miracle Gro solution.  In three weeks, the herbs are a Technicolor green.  They are robust, succulent-looking.  As far as I can tell, the neighbors plan to do nothing with the herb garden but leave it to flourish under my care.

I wonder if there is any other way for me to help the little plants.  I check the Web for advice on raising herbs.  The cat walks in a figure eight around my ankles.  I have left the window open, and the summer heat makes the cat sleepy.

I am horrified to find site after site advising me not to use Miracle Gro or any other fertilizer on herbs.  They need to struggle a bit to taste good, one gardener writes.  Do not feed them too often, says another, it will ruin them.

I lie down on the floor, away from the sun.  How could it be?  The herbs seem so healthy.  Maybe, I think, the appearance of health means nothing.  Maybe the Miracle Gro herbs taste like chalk, or they've become too bitter.

The next day, after the neighbors leave, I look down at the herb garden and again, I am struck by how vibrant the plants appear.

The cat scratches at the front door.

I crawl out the window and balance myself on the fire escape.

Carefully, I climb down rusty ladder rungs to the neighbors' herb garden.  Four floors beneath me, the street seems a sad solemn gray.  I sit cross-legged on the grate, hunching over the planter, and eat every leaf, every stem, every tendril.  I eat the basil first.  The one I did not know is parsley.  I eat that next.  Then the chives.

Last, I eat the mint, the most familiar flavor of them all.  It tastes green.  There is nothing wrong with any of them.  When I climb through my own window, the cat runs under the sofa.

I go into the bathroom and pick stolen herbs from my teeth.  I drink three glasses of water but still have a fuzzy feeling on my tongue from the mint.  My stomach is silent, although very full.

A day later, the pot where the herbs once grew is gone.  I watch the street on trash day, but I can't see it in the brown mess tumbling into the truck.  I have to do something.

I wrap the Miracle Gro with a ribbon left over from some Christmas.  I write a little note, tuck it under the ribbon, and leave the bottle outside the neighbors' door.

Sorry about your plants.  Someone's cat got out.  Better luck next time, the note says.  I do not sign the note.  Autumn, then winter, are coming.  The neighbors will forget all about it.  

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